Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Frankly, I’d Rather Mount . . . oh, Never Mind

My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, off-asphalt motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled motorized vehicles designed for an operator and no passengers―on America’s public-land trails was born one day in the early 90s. 

I was hiking a trail to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest.  A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed.  Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation.  Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely just a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman.  By the 90s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd and, sadly, the sell-out of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.  In places en route to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery.  The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with trunks, limbs, and branches to discourage traffic of any kind.  Yet even with forty-five pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute.  Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake soothed my nerves.

So I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris, my Ecosystem Council boss, asked me to represent the organization at a “training event” for ATV operation. 

Aren’t ATVs the council’s sworn enemy? I wondered.  But I didn’t verbally question her request.

It was a two-day affair on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa.  I commuted to the event both days. 

The first day, we met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon.  Some twenty-five people, mostly male, were present.  The participants included the instructor, who was an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee from Play Dirty ATV Tours of Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely area in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of Fay Meyers Motorcycle World in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area. 

The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad”: as near as I could figure, another name for an ATV.  Eight quads were provided for our training.  They were militant little vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads―infant stegosauri.  The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses.  As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and delivering me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor.  So much for subtlety, I thought. 

Meanwhile, What in the hell am I doing here? I wondered. 

Although I was perfectly cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event.  Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt out of place.  She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads.  Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie.  I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery. 

Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “practice track,” our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust.  When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.”  On his own machine, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed.  But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the size and brute force of these quads. 

At the end of the day, we all dripped dust.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled, and bore a nascent 8-foot-wide circular dirt track―the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.

The following day, we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead.  Far more people attended this event, which dealt primarily with the operation of dirt bikes―bare-bones motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock-absorbers and more tires bearing formidable teeth.  Some fifty males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20s and 30s arrived―from where I had no idea―in their electric-blue-and-orange shirts and pants, helmets, boots, gloves, and breastplates.  Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail. 

An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.”  We were advised to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of our machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and crows that chattered on the limbs and branches above us as Kenton lectured.  I could almost hear the attendees salivating when he informed them―to my astonishment―that the Rio Grande National Forest had eight hundred miles of trails available for motorized use.  When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.” With this, Roz and I exchanged knowing looks. 

At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature.  No off-road machinery was provided for Roz and myself this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles as we bid each other goodbye.  I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our national forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck.  There was more day to dawn and the sun was but a morning star.

On the drive home, I reflected.  I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead.  She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.”  I concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day event was simply to increase the visibility of the council with Colorado’s public lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots. 

Still, on the drive home, I returned to unexpurgated Ed Abbey, specifically an entry in his journal in 1984: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise takes up more space inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 2 – “Out There”

At Walsh, Colorado, which was a skosh more developed and busier than Kim, I drove south on a secondary country road, crossed the North Fork of the Cimarron River, and continued south to the junction of Highway 51, where I headed east.  In short order, I temporarily jettisoned an hour of my life when, entering Kansas, I entered the Central Time Zone.  A brief jaunt south on Highway 27 took me to a bridge over the Cimarron River.  There, I parked my truck, hoisted my pack, and headed east along the river’s bank in search of a suitable campsite.

I was expecting a plains version of a “wilderness experience” along the Cimarron.  After all, I was in the heart of a national grassland, with all the reasonable measures against excessive development I presumed this federal designation implied.  And I had taken Truman Capote at his word when he wrote, in In Cold Blood, that western Kansas was “a lonesome area” that Kansans from the eastern half of the state called “out there.” 

However, I was initially disappointed.  Sure, there were some undeveloped expanses of native grasses “out there,” but there were also acres of agricultural fields; dozens of scattered oil pumpjacks, their horseheads bobbing monotonously; and numerous aboveground pipelines presumably carrying natural gas.  But I suppose Capote is to be excused: his observation was drawn in 1965, when he was living in Brooklyn Heights; after Brooklyn, New York, I suspect anything would appear to be a “lonesome area.”  In any event, there was far more development here than in Kim and Walsh. 

More disappointments: I expected the Cimarron River to be nestled in a modest canyon like the one that contained the Purgatoire.  Instead, the river was in a mere crease in the landscape.  In addition, this being spring, I expected the river to have a respectable flow, but it merely pooled and trickled intermittently as it wound its way eastward.  In this regard, perhaps I should have studied my various regional maps more carefully: the Cimarron is revealingly known as the Dry Cimarron throughout New Mexico, where it begins just east of the city of Raton.  It is only in Oklahoma and then Kansas that it begins to be identified as simply the Cimarron.  Greater precipitation east of New Mexico?  Perhaps.

(A totally separate Cimarron River originates, appropriately enough, in northern New Mexico’s Cimarron Mountains and enters the Canadian River east of Springer, New Mexico.)

On the other hand, where I was camped, the river was blessedly fenced off from thirsty livestock that are in the habit of pissing and shitting as they drink.  And, after I came to terms with my disappointment and calmed down, the fundamental wildness of the river and its surroundings began to reveal itself.  Like always, like everywhere in nature. 

I heard meadowlarks, mourning doves, killdeer, and red-wings.  I saw deer prints in the sand.  I marveled at the evidence―the riverside tree trunks wrapped high in a poultice of mud, grass, branches, and rabbit carcasses―of a powerful flood that had occurred on this insipid watercourse.  I looked up through the gaunt, arthritic springtime limbs and branches of old cottonwoods. 

As dusk approached, a breeze arrived, causing the river’s pools to shiver and lending depth and mystery to the place.  At night, through my tent door, I saw a waxing moon in the western sky; I heard the velvety hoot of a great horned owl and the sirens of distant coyotes.  And I reminded myself that I was terribly fortunate to be where I was, and that I ought to allow a place to unfold at its own pace.  The following morning, I left the Great Plains with three days of accumulated space in me, enough perhaps to pry the mountains back home a little farther apart.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 1

During my first spring in the valley, weary of the surrounding mountains―the weight of their prodigious snowfields and the way they seemed to crimp each day’s helping of daylight―I once again felt the lure of the Great Plains, the “GREAT AMERICAN DESERT” on explorer Stephen Long’s 1821 map.  

So I got in my truck and drove east, entering the plains at Walsenburg, Colorado, where I continued in the same direction on empty, laser-straight Colorado Highway 10.  There, I passed barbed-wire fences bearing no-trespassing signs faded into near invisibility by incessant sunlight, scouring wind and dust, and utter human disinterest; empty pastures gone to yucca and cholla; and lonely mini-mesas, buttes, promontories, and nubbins; all in the wrap of sky and beneath the crush of space. 

Nothing else.  Not even Cary Grant in a dusty suit. 

At the Kopper Kitchen in La Junta, Colorado, I ate a “chiliburger,” a factory-stamped beef patty on a slice of Holsum Bread, all drowned in a “chili sauce” so bland I added ketchup to give it a kick, any kind of a kick.  A Southwestern travesty.  And in a town with a Spanish name!

Then I headed south into the Comanche National Grassland. After the Comanche nation, once the most fearsome on the North American continent.

There, with a fully-loaded backpack, prepared to camp for a night, I explored a strange geological shiver on that otherwise smooth land: the half-mile-wide canyon of the Purgatoire River and its various feeder canyons, all of them burrowing echoes of the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Spanish Peaks to the west.  The Purgatoire, about 30 feet wide, moved at the pace of a Western box turtle on its journey to its confluence with the far larger Arkansas River east of Las Animas, Colorado. 

These worn canyons were not the colorful, sheer, deep defiles of southeast Utah.  They were generally twenty to thirty feet deep and consisted of two tiers of sandstone separated by a gentle dirt slope.  With a sound body one could climb out of them at nearly any point.  They were filled with grasses, sagebrush, cholla, the occasional cottonwood, and, along the riverbanks, willow and salt cedar.  They didn’t boom with space and vibrate with broken rock, as in Utah; they rather slumbered.

At various times of day, they filled with the music of the meadowlark, flicker, red-wing blackbird, and, far too infrequently, the signature bird of the canyon country: the delicate canyon wren with a plummeting call somehow appropriate for places with depth.  Meanwhile, above soared the red-tailed hawk and the first vultures of the season. 

In the appalling emptiness of the plains, the womblike shelter these canyons offered was particularly welcome.  I saw not a single foot traveler.  And who the hell backpacks on the Great Plains, anyway?  Trudging along beneath my load, I was a Four Corners, hump-backed Kokapelli gone astray, feeling as queer on this landscape as a blue spruce or bull elk.

The following morning, wishing to escape any sight of the Rocky Mountains, I continued southeast, past miles and miles of treeless pastures, barbed-wire fences, windmills, and dry creeks.  My next destination: the Cimarron River in the Cimarron National Grassland of southwestern Kansas. 

On the way, I paused on a windy afternoon to investigate an abandoned house near Kim, Colorado.  (Kim, Rush, Vona, Cope, Joes, Otis, Hale, Kirk, Roy, Pep, Dora, Eads: Why do high plains towns often have names as short as the native grass that carpets them?) 

From the road, the house was not hard to identify as abandoned: its dirt driveway was choked with weeds, and the vivid plains sky streamed through many of its curtainless windows, some without panes.  A raptor, nesting or merely hunting, alighted from somewhere in or on the single-story structure as I approached.  The house’s roof, nearly stripped of shingles, was a bristle of nails.  The roof that day notwithstanding, the obvious fitness of the sandstone-and-concrete-mortar structure might at one time have been the envy of Kimians.  With a warring mixture of curiosity and anxiety―Abandoned or occupied, what can be more private and personal than an American home?―I entered. 

The house included a sun room windowed with tall plexi-glass.  A large, vinyl-upholstered easy chair, now in considerable decay, was its only piece of furniture.  I wondered why this sumptuous chair was abandoned on this smooth, hard land where even a natural seat is difficult to come by.  Around the chair were scattered magazines―Farm Journal, Life, Better Homes and Gardens―from the early fifties and an October 1964 issue of Grit magazine. 

The kitchen’s wooden cabinets and shelving were rotten and caked with rodent turds.  The living room included a fireplace, although the obvious question was, where did one find an abundant supply of wood for it?  Meanwhile, the wind howled through holes in the roof.  Wary of prairie rattlers, I descended into the basement cautiously.  The basement had two rooms, each with a closet, the closet likely doubling as a tornado shelter.  How precious, amid the stare of all this space, must have been the privacy of a simple little bedroom constructed of flimsy walls in a simple little house on the plains. 

Back outside the house, as the flushed raptor circled directly overhead, I discovered what appeared to be a concrete cistern, bone dry.  There was a corral, and a stable with a cinderblock foundation.  Six trees, likely fruit of some kind and apparently dead, stood in a row.  A rusted, windowless Chevy Impala, minus wheels and bearing 1963 Colorado plates, perched on a great pedestal of dirt.  The surrounding yard was littered with cow manure: home, home on the range. 

I’ve entered abandoned houses in such Great Plains counties as Weld in Colorado and Harding and Union in New Mexico.  There are few things emptier, sadder.  Unlike their counterparts in cities, their missing windows―rendering them “sightless,” in the words of author Max Evans, who lived for years in Des Moines, New Mexico―and doors are rarely boarded up, probably because there’s no interest whatsoever in entering them.  So the surrounding space flushes and scours them outside and in. 

A major scourge of cities is homelessness.  For decades, places like Kim, Colorado; Mills, New Mexico; and Rolla, Kansas, have grappled with a different kind of tragedy: homes without people.  Peoplelessness.  Since the 1920s, due to consolidation and automation in the farming industry―and, yes, perhaps a lack of vision―population has been steadily decreasing in the rural areas of the Great Plains.  Human-caused climate change might be the final nail in the coffin. Maybe wind farming will reverse this trend.  Maybe, as has been proposed, vast tracts of the plains will be transformed into a federal nature preserve, a “buffalo commons” employing caretakers.  In any event, the peoplelessness allowed me to brazenly snoop around that property and, as my guts churned, imagine the whole human spectrum of hope, perseverance, disappointment, and ultimate failure.  The ruinous dwelling in Kim brought to mind Robert Duvall’s modern-day plainsman character in the motion picture Tender Mercies when he proclaimed: “You see, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did.  I never will.” 

Finally, I wondered where that cool Impala went on a Saturday night in Kim, Colorado, when JFK was president.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

“Ecodefense”?

Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work.  One afternoon, while checking the mailbox at the end of our driveway, I found a note left by Wayne, informing me that an Alamosa “environmental organization” was looking for an office manager.  I phoned the number included in the note, spoke to “Chris,” the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and we agreed to an interview.  Chris told me the interview would be conducted at the KRZA building, where the organization had an office of which I was unaware, even though I had been volunteering once a week at the station.  I knew nothing about the Ecosystem Council.  

In any event, because Wayne identified it as an “environmental organization,” I assumed that, at the very least, it dealt with issues of wilderness defense around the Valley, and this greatly intrigued me.  Here, I thought, was a possible opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engaging in the nuts and bolts of protecting it, a chance to make amends I felt were necessary following my employment at the embattled Albuquerque lumber company. 

The interview occurred with Chris and “Howard,” the latter a Council board member.  There was the inevitable question of what got me interested in environmental advocacy, and I mentioned my years of hiking and backpacking in the Southwest, my membership in the central New Mexico chapter of the Sierra Club, and my master’s thesis celebrating the various landscapes of New Mexico.  I felt good about the interview.  However, a week went by without hearing from the Council, so I phoned it, inquiring about my status, and Chris offered me the job.

The Council’s small, dank, and dusty office was at a front corner of the radio station’s first floor.  Daylight dulled by sheets of plastic―the poor person’s “storm windows”―filtered through the two large glass windows hung with faded curtains.  Two massive recycled wooden desks were there for me and Chris; on mine sat a personal computer.  A number of books stood on a shelf.  I was hoping for at least one by Abbey or “ecodefense” champion Dave Foreman, and was disappointed.

The Council was incorporated as a non-profit several years prior to my hiring.  Chris, who came aboard about six months before me, and I were its only paid staff.  The organization’s board included a physician’s assistant, a woodworker, and a respected Alamosa artist who painted landscapes in oils when he wasn’t working, during the growing season, for a Valley lettuce company.  The Council’s main goals were building recognition and credibility in the Valley, and securing legal advice. 

I initially worked 25 hours a week, answering the phone, researching and adding names and addresses to the mailing list database on the computer, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the organization at events of environmental interest in the region, and documenting the organization’s field projects.  I often worked alone, as Chris commuted to the office from her home in Crestone, an hour’s drive, only twice a week.  The independence and solitude suited me.

Chris struck me as a classic representative of a considerable slice of the Valley’s population.  Some 10 years younger than I, she arrived in the Valley―from exactly where, I did not ask―with her husband two years before me.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a college graduate, she indicated that she worked briefly on, of all things, one of David Letterman’s “Late Night” shows―in what capacity, I never asked.  She was a hale and solid woman who eschewed make-up, her cheeks rouged by the Valley’s sun and wind.  She would have looked at home on the coasts of Ireland.  Her long hair, unstyled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office damp from a shower and shampoo.  Her clothes were always clean, but casual, and many of them might easily have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store.  Her running shoes were worn.  Chris was irrepressibly upbeat and generous, and struck me as someone utterly incapable of mind games and power struggles.  From the beginning, she frequently sought my opinion on a wide spectrum of matters, and I had rarely felt so valued in a new job.  

Somewhat to my dismay, however, there wasn’t the slightest bit of drama at the Council office during my first months of employment.  There were no complaints about road closures or dirt-bike and all-terrain vehicle restrictions.  There were no challenges to timber sales in the Rio Grande National Forest.  There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses.  The office rarely had visitors, and the phone rarely rang.  Indeed, I realized that the council was truly unknown.  Nonetheless, I quietly went about my job as if I were still the scrivener at the instrument repair company in Denver a quarter-century earlier.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Messianic

When I craved deep snow, I knew I could reliably find it throughout the winter after a short drive south to the 10,230-foot-high La Manga Pass area, where I snowshoed on vast meadows in the shadow of Pinorealosa Mountain, a crumb of the greater South San Juan Mountains.  Accessible by a two-lane highway, the pass was nonetheless remote, as it connected only the tiny towns of Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. 

I purchased my first snowshoes shortly after moving to Alamosa, and I loved snowshoeing. 

The snows on La Manga Pass were variously three to five feet deep, and deeper even where they drifted along the clefts of the frozen creek beds.  With the aid of ski poles, I’d trek upon the depths of virgin snow, if the conditions were right sinking no more than six inches to a foot.  Casually I’d venture up and down gentle slopes, here in blinding sunshine, there through gloomy stands of conifer casting cyanotic shadows. 

I particularly delighted in blithely crossing, or pretending to tightrope upon, the topmost strands of nearly-buried barbed-wire fences, those hated barriers that are everywhere in the West, tearing shirts and jeans and drawing blood in any other season. 

I loved windy days on the snowbound pass, scudded clouds racing just above, banners of snow spewing from the edges of drifts, scores of ghostly snow devils whirling and boiling over the meadows, requiring me to don amber-tinted goggles. 

I generally visited the pass on weekdays, so rarely did I see other snowshoe-ers, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers. 

Bundled in down-filled ski pants and a ski jacket, I’d climb to the lip of a ten-foot drift, stomp my feet, watch cracks suddenly etch all around me, and gaily plummet in my own little death-defying avalanche of cushiony snow.  I was the eight-year-old, deliriously happy Philip Davis in a New Jersey blizzard―a leaden and, but for the howling wind, silent world of cancelled schools, snow caves, snow plows, soggy leggings, ice-jammed boot buckles, Flexible Flyers seeking out even the slightest slope, and a steaming bowl of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with Premium Saltines for lunch.

And I recalled Hal Borland’s words describing the high plains of northeastern Colorado following a three-day-long blizzard: “After such a storm, the world of the plains is a strange and magnificent place.  It is as though all the earth-shaping forces have been at work on a vastly quickened scale of time.  Hills, valleys, hollows and hummocks have all been reshaped to a new pattern.  The wind has had its way, at last, the wind that is forever trying to level the hills and fill the valleys.  It has been able to work its will with an obediently plastic, though transient, material.” 

And I, on La Manga Pass, was able to have my way, work my will, by walking on top of all that snow without fear of burial.  The feeling was messianic. 

At day’s end, I’d bid farewell to the wind and snow of the pass and return to the bare, frozen ground of the San Luis Valley, reminded of how consequential Southwestern mountains are―far more so, it seemed to me, than the passive mountains and hills of my native Northeast―when it comes to delivering snow and rain to the arid lands.

Barry Lopez (1945-2020)

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Snow in the Valley

Snow arrived during our first October in Alamosa.  The manner of its unfolding in this valley that abhors precipitation would become typical.  It began with late-morning clouds descending upon the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Blanca Peak.  By afternoon, the clouds continued to build on the perimeter, extending south over the range beyond La Veta Pass.  Then winds entered the valley, ushering clouds that obscured the Piñon Hills to the south.  By four p.m., the entire valley was under a dome of cloud.  By six p.m., a wall of cloud connecting sky and earth advanced over the valley floor from the north.  By seven, dry, confetti-like flakes of snow began to fall at our house.    

Come morning, the skies clear, the air clean and biting, several inches of snow blanketed Alamosa County.  Buddy and Nick, born and raised in the hot desert, stepped upon it tentatively.  The squeak and growl of snow beneath my boots was the first I’d heard in years.  The crests and peaks of the Sangres, now more a province of sky than Earth, were cloaked in snow; forbidding enough in summer, now they were a no-man’s or -woman’s land. 

Yet, by noon, the air had warmed and the snow around our home had melted, surprising and saddening me, although the ground was still damp.  But I knew those mountains would remain snow-capped until the following summer, unfailing beacons, their glow fed by sun-, moon-, and even starlight.

My friend Wayne would tell me of the brutal winters he experienced in Alamosa as an Adams State College student, winters not only bitterly cold but deep with snow that lingered even in the generally arid heart of the Valley.  I believed him, although with some difficulty.  Snow rarely accumulated to any great extent during our years in Alamosa, and when it did, it disappeared rapidly in the teeth of the almost daily unobstructed sunshine. 

In any event, when it snowed at our house and in town, I reveled in it, grateful for every flake.  The dry valley cold that usually accompanied a snowfall insured that the flakes would be light and dancing, as apt to travel, with the right breath of wind, upward as downward―the “champagne powder” for which Colorado ski resorts are famous.  Normally not one for jostling sidewalk crowds―not even the “crowds” on the sidewalks of little Alamosa―I’d deliberately walk through the city’s downtown on a snowy afternoon, exchanging smiles with the other citizens who were obviously delighting in the rare magic.  Urban pedestrians―jostling, grasping, and grating under the best of circumstances―surely enjoy at least the initial stages of a snowfall, when everyone is wrapped in his and her personal envelope of falling snow, buffered against everyone else, nerves soothed.  Meanwhile, I knew the valley’s farms and ranchers cherished the moisture.   

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

More Fall in the Valley, More Thoughts

So, fall in the San Luis Valley was this, and much more.  Bales of alfalfa and straw cleated the fields, the alfalfa bound for dairy farms in desert New Mexico, the straw bales for commercial photographers offering portraits with rural themes, and for our yard, where they elevated the dogs above the frozen ground. 

Asters like lavender-flamed farolitos miraculously blossomed in the bleakest of soils.  

Gold was rampant: in the blooming rabbitbrush that tossed gaily in the wind, the snakeweed that flooded the overgrazed rangelands.  Gold reached its apotheosis in the leaves of the aspens in the surrounding mountains.  Pure high-elevation sunlight pouring through autumn-vacant skies fueled the leaves’ color like gasoline fuels fire.  When a breeze was added to this mix, setting the billions of fiery leaves to fluttering, the trees seemed to strain at their roots, fit to launch themselves and carry a mountainside with them.  Not even an overcast sky could dim a flaming stand of autumn aspen. 

Fall was Maximilian sunflowers exploding at the edges of roads and highways, the forlorn greasewood coming to dull-pink flower on the parched flats, hollyhocks tottering beneath the weight of their blossoms in Alamosa’s gardens.  

Fall was the scatter of skinned potatoes on the asphalt at the rural intersections, perhaps a sharp turn or abrupt start liberating these tubers between field and shed.  Fall was the campaign sign nailed to a fence, the pop of a hunter’s gunfire echoing against hill and mountain, the last Mexico-bound vulture, the Conejos River west of Manassa reduced to pools.

Fall was cattle herded down from the mountains, rounded up in the pastures, and finally clustered in sturdy wooden corrals outside of Valley towns.  There they were loaded onto double-decked trailers that took them to the slaughterhouses east of Colorado’s front range.  Each packed with 25 tons of beef, the tractor-trailers rumbled down Alamosa’s main street, an ammoniac train in their wake.  The steel trailers were like giant, box-shaped colanders.  Through their thousands of oblong ventilation holes, the perimeters of some shit-smeared, I’d catch a glimpse of a dusty hide; the pale pink flesh of a nostril; or the single dark eyeball enjoying its last look at sunshine, billowing clouds, towering mountains, sparkling rivers and streams, and grassy plains―the idyll that comprised its mere 15 months of Earthly existence.  A sharp turn or a sudden stop at a traffic light resulted in a loud clatter of hooves as the cargo momentarily lost its balance―callous disregard, I’d think, but perhaps nothing compared to the load’s ultimate fate, Temple Grandin’s efforts at humane slaughter notwithstanding. 

A yogi I once studied, advocating for a vegetarian diet, invited his readers to consider the mood of cattle awaiting slaughter while penned in a seemingly benign stockyard.  Arguing that even a Hereford cow has a considerable range of emotions, he maintained that cattle under such a circumstance have uncharacteristically somber, even sad, states of mind, because, of course, they sense their impeding deaths.  Not long after reading this, I took a bicycle ride on a trail in northwest Denver that happened to skirt a packed stockyard.  The cattle I witnessed there were strangely quiet, almost motionless, barely even bobbing their heads.  Perhaps the yogi is correct, I thought.  In Alamosa, the memory of this event got me to wondering.  Surely there is the scent of death in the “packing plants” of Greeley, La Junta, or wherever Colorado cattle meet their doom.  I wondered how many degrees of separation the odor survived.  Did it attach to the trucks and trailers at the slaughterhouse?  If so, did it ultimately trickle to the very wooden loading pens in the otherwise sweet air of the Valley? 

After seeing all those packed trailers during my falls in the Valley, it was hard for me to not go full Billy Crystal, not be moved by the sight of a cow feeding, nuzzling, or grooming her little one―surely an expression of tenderness transcending mere instinct―out on some warm summer range.  And yet, on a cold autumn evening, my mouth often watered at the prospect of a burger at St. Ives restaurant on Alamosa’s main street.

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Nooooo. Chile Grown in Colorado?

Although for fifteen years, before moving to New Mexico, I enjoyed excellent Mexican food in Colorado, I never noticed late-summer commercial chile-roasting on the state’s street corners and in the state’s supermarket parking lots.  Now, in the San Luis Valley, I continued to assume this was a charming practice confined to New Mexico.  

Thus, I was surprised when, one late afternoon in mid-August, while driving on Hunt Avenue just south of downtown, I got the unmistakable whiff―that intoxicating, sweet-smoky odor―of roasting long-green chiles.  Sure enough, a roaster, a gridironed metal drum that revolves just above some propane gas-fed flames, was operating in the parking lot of Atencio’s Market, so I just had to pull into the lot―not, I told myself, to make a purchase, merely to watch and smell.  By the roaster, I joined several other addicts, along with the man with the denim apron, long brakeman’s gloves, and wire brush who operated the device. 

As I watched the peppers tumble in the drum―slowly, carefully blackening and becoming increasingly limp―my gaze turned to a nearby pallet stacked with burlap bags of freshly-harvested raw chiles.  The bags read that the chiles were from a farm in . . . Pueblo, Colorado? 

I was surprised.  I didn’t think a chile seed had a prayer beyond the air, water, soil, sunlight, and agricultural sorcery of Hatch, New Mexico, the (self-proclaimed) “chile capital of the world.” 

Good heavens, had I been greatly enjoying Colorado chile in various Alamosa restaurants since my arrival?

I had to explore this further, so I walked into Atencio’s and headed for the fruit-and-produce section.  In a bin were piled some individual chiles, with a sign indicating they were “hot.” 

“Hah!” I thought.  I held up one.  “From Pueblo?” I asked a nearby employee, a woman un-boxing bananas.  She arched her brows and nodded as if to affirm the obvious.  I bought several of the peppers and headed home.  

There, I spread some foil in our stove’s broiler, upon which I laid the washed peppers.  I turned on the broiler.  I dumped some ice into a pot of water. 

I turned the chiles over and over until they had sufficiently blackened and blistered.  I dropped them into the pot of ice water and stirred, to coax the hot chile flesh from the charred skin, a technique I’d learned in Anthony. 

When the ice cubes had all but melted, I asked myself, “Should I don latex gloves?”―to protect my hands against the capsaicin, of course.  “Nah.  After all, we’re talkin’ Pueblo.  We’re talkin’ el norte.”  

I plunged my bare hands into the pot and removed the peppers.  I carefully removed the skins―generally not eaten when charred―from the flesh.  Hunger increasing, I took a knife and sliced off the head of each pepper.  Then I sliced open each pepper lengthwise and scrapped away the seeds. 

As I reached for the salt shaker, I noticed my fingertips beginning to burn.  Then I felt entire fingers aflame.  I opened the kitchen door with one alarmed pinkie and carefully removed the half-gallon milk bottle.  I generously flushed both burning hands with milk, to neutralize the capsaicin: I’d learned that in Anthony, as well.  Yet this provided only a modicum of relief, so I rinsed my hands under cold tap water, despite the fact that I’d read this was basically futile. 

But never mind this temporary discomfort: I was curious, my taste buds were longing, and those chiles weren’t getting any warmer by the thermometer.  I lightly salted the flesh of a chile, cut off a segment of it, and, with a fork (gratuitous, really, at this point), popped the segment into my mouth. 

And, lo and behold, there it was.  That slightly sweet, slightly citrus-y, mostly indescribable flavor.  Then I felt a blowtorch on the lips, which spread to my tongue and gums, and then a firestorm filled the entire buccal region.  

I polished off the remaining long greens.

Well, Viva Pee-EB-low!

creative non fiction, New Mexico, southwest

Teaching Yet Again

Meanwhile, I managed to land a job at Adams State College as an adjunct instructor teaching, yet again, freshman composition.  At the west end of Alamosa, the 81-year-old institution (today officially named Adams State University) had a conventionally lovely campus that clearly looked more Western than Southwestern.  Tall narrow-leaf cottonwoods shaded lush green lawns.  Pueblo-style architecture was non-existent; brick, pitched roofs, square corners, and a lofty white steeple were the order of the day. 

Because Adams was a four-year institution, I was now back among many instructors with doctoral degrees who were either tenured or on tenure tracks.  For the same reason, I assumed, correctly or incorrectly, that its students were academically of a higher caliber and more committed to completing a higher education than your average community college student.  My classes consisted of fewer Latinos.  The presence of one or two African Americans in each of my classes was also a change from teaching in west Texas.  Most of my students were from Colorado and bordering states.  A good number of my White, non-Latino students were from rural areas like the San Luis Valley, and thus they had what I sensed were conservative upbringings.  What remained the same was the English department’s teaching angle: rhetorical approaches to composition, using yet another reader chock full of short essays. 

The reading comprehension and writing abilities of my students were somewhat better than those of my community college students.  Still, it was a chore to generate class discussion, and I continued to dread reading and grading papers.  The college had a football program, so during class I occasionally had to rouse a “Grizzly”―that is, an Adams football player―out of what appeared to be a slumber.  Another first was the young man who wrote, vividly and with surprising coherence, about the joys of masturbation; I don’t recall the rhetorical approach that framed his discussion. 

A colleague of mine, who also had a desk in the small common room for adjunct instructors, was Wayne.  A graduate of Adams, he had a bachelor’s degree when we met, yet he was far more experienced than I at teaching, both at the secondary-school and college level.  I envied his apparently successful pedagogical methods and his ability to roll with the challenges.  He lived with his wife, also an educator, in the frigid, hard-pan mining town of Creede, northwest of the Valley.  In addition to reading and writing, his passion was downhill skiing.  And snow: His prose offered more descriptions and discussions of the white stuff than any I’d ever read; indeed, he was Thoreau’s “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms,” reading, for his own safety as well as transcendence, snow like a book.  He eventually went on to get his master of fine arts and publish a book about ski-bumming, mainly at Wolf Creek, and living with a literally delicate heart.  He still lives in south-central Colorado, and we remain friends to this day.

New Mexico, southwest

Laughin’ and Scratchin’

In the two decades prior to moving to Alamosa I had been a regular listener of “public radio” stations (i.e., advertising-free, tax-supported radio stations) in Denver; Albuquerque; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and El Paso.  All of these stations had National Public Radio affiliation and thus all offered various doses of NPR programming.  Among my favorite NPR offerings were the regular shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  So I was pleased―and, given the city’s size and remoteness, surprised―that Alamosa, too, had not only a public radio station, but one affiliated with NPR.  After my arrival, I began listening to KRZA regularly.  In addition to satellite-transmitted NPR programming, the station broadcast music shows of various genres hosted by disk jockeys―all likely self-trained―from the community.  Another locally-produced show that I enjoyed was A las Ocho, which, as its Spanish name indicates, aired at 8 a.m.  A half-hour long, the show discussed news, politics, arts, and entertainment in the KRZA broadcast area.  Linda suggested I inquire about volunteer opportunities, if any, at the station, so one August morning I drove to its location, a predominantly residential neighborhood several blocks south of downtown. 

Located on a corner lot, the station’s two-story, pitched-roof building was old; I would learn it was once a church.  Upon entering the ground floor and witnessing the worn carpeting; old, massive metal and wooden desks; windowsills coated with dust; chipped paint; and general disarray, I determined the station was operating on a very lean budget.  I met some four or five employees and volunteers, men and women ranging from their 30s to their 40s.  One of the employees, Debbie, suggested I might enjoy being a substitute “news host” for the broadcast of Morning Edition

The offer stunned me: Throw me, with absolutely no broadcasting experience, on the air?  Part of me was frightened by the possibility; and yet another part, the one that had enjoyed listening to the radio since I was 10, was intrigued.  I liked the music I’d heard on radio through the years―the AM rock-and-roll and pop, FM progressive rock, country, jazz, even classical.  Equally well I liked what I regarded as the marvelously adept voices―sprinting on AM radio, sauntering on FM―of the disk jockeys; people like Big Dan (“laughin’ and scratchin’”) Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Herb Oscar Anderson, B. Mitchel Reed on New York City radio; Dick Brehm, Gene Amole, Pete Mackay, Bill Ashford, and “Uncle” Mike McCuen on Denver radio; overnight jazz disk jockey Bob Parlocha syndicated on El Paso public radio. And then there was Jean Shepherd, an entirely unique airwave influence.  In the sixties, I listened nightly to this brilliant Indiana humorist―a hip, manic, maestro of improvisation―on New York City’s WOR.  A nonpareil radio storyteller rather than a smooth-talking disk jockey. 

“Sure, I would like to see the broadcast booth,” I answered Debbie, so she began leading me up a dank stairwell to the second floor.  At a landing on the stairwell, posted on a door to the east entrance of the building, was a picture of gaunt-faced novelist William S. Burroughs; from his mouth came a dialogue balloon containing the words “Hasta Pronto.”  

The second floor of the station, chilly even on an August mid-morning, reminded me more of an attic―a dark, cramped, nearly triangular space beneath the pitched roof.  A desk and chairs crowded this area, and CDs and vinyl records stuffed its shelves along the walls.  More CDs and vinyl overflowed from boxes on the floor.  In towers of metal racks were fitted electronic equipment that hummed and winked with dozens of small lights.  En route to the north side of the floor, Debbie pointed out to me the little room where “sound editing” was done.  At the floor’s north end, we passed through a door into cord cordium, the tiny broadcast booth.

The booth was considerably cheerier, owing to the daylight entering through a north-facing, un-openable window, the clarity of its pane and the fresh lumber of its frame clearly indicating that it was not originally part of the building.  The booth’s ceiling was covered with what appeared to be an inverted eggcrate mattress.  On one table sat two phonograph turntables.  On a second table were positioned CD and cassette players; the control console with its myriad dials, buttons, and knobs; a couple of free-standing microphones; and, finally, clamped and rubber-banded to a zig-zagging, retractable metal arm―like the stinger of a scorpion―the main broadcast microphone.  At the console a worn, cushioned desk chair on wheels stood upon a thick sheet of plastic, in various stages of decay and heavily bandaged with duct tape, placed over worn carpeting. 

Sitting in the chair was Tom, a bearded early-70s fellow in a brown leather vest and scuffed, round-toed Western boots: host, Debbie had informed me downstairs, of a weekly “big band” music show.  Tom bobbed to the music issuing from the booth’s speakers, and then turned to me.  “‘Up a Lazy River.’  Mills Brothers,” Tom, grinning, informed me, politely assuming I didn’t know, and he was correct.  “Very nice,” I said as the recording neared its conclusion, then continued, “My dad liked―” 

I paused abruptly as Tom raised an index finger to his lips, slipped on a pair of headphones, and pushed a button on the console.  The speakers went silent, cutting off the ending of the recording, and Tom began speaking into the mic, delivering a rundown of the set he had just completed: “Glenn Miller” . . . “‘Tuxedo Junction’” . . . “Gene Krupa” . . . “The Andrews Sisters” . . . “‘Fly Me to the Moon’” . . . “Benny Goodman” . . . “James Darren . . .”

James Darren? I thought (the old musical top-10 mind at work). Until then, I didn’t know Darren―in my opinion, just one more of those bland Philadelphia late-50s/early-60s pop singers whose recording career was mercifully annihilated with the arrival of The Beatles―was a “big band” vocalist. However, I kept this thought to myself.

As Tom spoke into the mic, a thrill swept through me.  I looked at the combination mic and cord and imagined the hundreds (perhaps thousands!) of people at the other end of it in the first hours of a Valley morning, sipping their coffee; eating their crunchy granola and bran muffins; smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes; vacuuming their geodesic domes; driving to their art galleries, dry cleaners, supermarkets, dental appointments, alfalfa fields, and irrigation ponds; firing up their day’s first joint.  

“I’d love to give it a try,” I said to Debbie as we exited the broadcast booth.

At 4:50 the following morning, pen and notebook in hand, I met Lisa, the regular Morning Edition host, at the station entrance.  Clutching a mug of coffee, she said little as she threw on a light in first floor of the stone-cold building and marched up the stairs with me close behind.  A second-floor light was already on as we proceeded to the broadcast booth.  At the electronics tower, Lisa turned on more switches to “bring up the station”―for the station broadcast nothing, either locally or by satellite, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Another switch activated the satellite transmission of NPR programming, which was well under way out of Washington, D.C.  Meanwhile, I scribbled these procedures madly in my notebook.  A minute before 5 a.m., while I sat and watched, Lisa sat at the console, slipped on the headphones, twirled a dial, coaxed a knob, and, speaking into the mic, identified the station, announced the beginning of the station’s “broadcasting day,” confirmed the station’s licensing credentials, and gave the local time.  She removed the headphones, hit a button, and through the booth’s speakers there was NPR Washington host Bob Edwards introducing the 5 a.m. Mountain Daytlight Time broadcast of Morning Edition

I then followed her downstairs, where, at a personal computer, she went to various websites from which she cut-and-pasted the daily weather forecasts for the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico and―to be broadcast later on A las Ocho―brief news stories of her choice from online local and regional newspapers.  After printing this information, we returned to the second floor.  In the broadcast booth, as I sat at the console, Lisa showed me a printed schedule of regular breaks that occur during the broadcast of Morning Edition, times during which I was free to report the weather forecast and deliver public service announcements, the latter collected in a three-ring binder.  Then I slipped on the headphones and―nervously, clumsily―”hosted” Morning Edition for an hour. 

The following morning, I arrived at the station at 4:45, although this time alone and with a key to the station’s front door.  Shortly before five, I brought the station up, slipped a cassette I brought from home into the player, and segued the station into the broadcast day with country singer Mickey Newbury’s recording of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”  I thought this recording was rather appropriate, given that the song opens up with the “dawn . . . silently breaking.”  On the other hand, the singer’s heart is also “silently breaking” because his sweetheart has just left him.  I knew the melancholy recording might cause some listeners to shut off the radio and return to dreamland, but I broadcast it anyway, because I loved it. 

Over the next few mornings, until Lisa’s return, I occasionally stumbled, but generally figured out how to pace myself and navigate through NPR’s airwave traffic.  I took it upon myself to pencil-edit for clarity and brevity some of the clumsily-written public service announcements.  Meanwhile, buzzed on caffeine, with the headphone volume jacked up as I “announced,” I marveled at the various dimensions―the smooth plains, rounded hills, swooping valleys, and sharply-cut canyons―of my, if I did say so myself, rather good radio voice.

And so, at 49, I discovered a new interest.